By Charlotte King
With the Conservative party fragmented and Parliament trapped in what felt like an eternal deadlock, there was a rock standing strong amongst the whirlwind of political chaos: Theresa May. It has been almost three years since she was elected to be Britain’s Prime Minister, to ‘lead the way’ to a successful departure from the European Union. But now, her time as come to an end.
Addressing the nation this morning, May stood before the lectern and declared that she will quit as the Conservative Leader and Prime Minister on June 7th, from when a leadership contest will commence to determine who Britain’s and the Conservative Party’s next leader will be.
May’s speech was an emotional one, reflecting upon her time in office and all she had achieved. She announced that she was proud of the work her government had accomplished, building upon the successes of previous members of the government, including David Cameron and George Osborne. May lamented the Grenfell Tower tragedy, making note of how her independent inquiry intends to prevent anything like it happening again, and proudly boasted of how during her three years in office, her government created more security for first-time buyers, moved forward with environmental policy, and put mental health at the centre of the NHS’ long term plan.
The PM ended her speech by announcing what an honour she felt it had been to lead Britain for the past three years and believes “there is so much that is good about this country, so much to be proud of, so much to be optimistic about”. It appeared she was fighting back tears as she concluded she will vacate the position with “enormous and enduring gratitude” to have been able to serve the country she loves.
May’s resignation comes as no surprise. Throughout her premiership, the PM has been fighting an impossible battle. In June 2017, she called a snap election in an effort to cement a landslide Conservative majority, seeking a mandate from the people to lead the Brexit negotiations. However, following what some described as an atrocious election campaign, the Conservative Party failed to gain any more seats in the House of Commons and rather lost its former majority of 17 seats. The PM instead sat at the helm of a hung parliament, propped up only by her deal with Northern Ireland’s DUP.
In December 2018, May was then faced with a vote of no confidence instigated by members of her own party, clinging on to power by the skin of her teeth as the House of Commons rejected the motion by a vote of 325-306. Fast forward to January 15th, 2019, the PM brought her infamous Brexit deal to the Chamber for the first time. This was the first of what became three ‘meaningful votes’, all of which saw consecutive rejections and drilled home that May’s deal was dead in the water despite her refusal to accept it. And to add fuel the fire, her attempts to find common ground with Labour were nothing short of disastrous.
Wednesday evening then saw Conservative MP and Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, resign from her post, claiming she no longer believed that the government would “deliver on the referendum result”. This came as a huge blow to May and was evidence that even her most staunch supporters were turning their backs on her and her dying deal. In total, May has endured 12 resignations from the front bench and has seen 50 ministers resign, with over 30 resigning for Brexit-related reasons.
The final nail in the coffin however was not the fact that May flirted with the idea of a fourth ‘meaningful vote’, but ultimately the proposal for a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union which would have come pending a ‘yes’ vote for her deal. Parliament made its stance very clear back in March when Change UK’s Sarah Wollaston tabled an amendment on a second referendum which lost by a phenomenal 85 to 334 votes. It seems that May’s pandering to the more centrist members of her party was the straw that broke the camel’s back and put her firmly on the path to this morning’s announcement.
So, it really does seem that this has been a long time coming. The Conservative backbenchers have been steadily growing louder, expressing their discontent at May’s Brexit deal and her attempts to coordinate the UK’s departure from the EU, culminating in Sir Graham Brady, leader of the 1922 Committee, meeting with May this morning to presumably tell her it was time to go.
It is with a heavy heart that May retreated from the lectern after announcing her departure this morning, but we now must look forward to the future. With a Conservative Party leadership election around the corner, who are the potential candidates to take the reins and pick up where May left off? The most obvious candidate is former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The MP has the public backing of Jacob Rees-Mogg, hard Eurosceptic and chair of the European Research Group, amongst various other MPs who have also pledged their support. There are also speculations that former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, will be putting his name forward to the 1922 committee.
Aside from Johnson and Raab, there is a possibility we will see former Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, making a bid for leadership, alongside former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey. Other potential candidates include Rory Stewart, Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Steve Baker. The contest will commence shortly after May’s departure as Prime Minister and will ultimately see members of the Conservative Party choosing between two candidates for leadership.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has reacted to May’s resignation with calls for a general election. He states, “The Conservative Party has utterly failed the country over Brexit and is unable to improve people’s lives or deal with their most pressing needs”. Mark Drakeford, Wales’ First Minister, wishes May well for the future but warns that a leadership contest is “the last thing the country needs” and an orderly Brexit is looking increasingly unlikely. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has also said that May’s departure “will not solve the Brexit mess that the Tories have created” and too believes a general election is the only way to resolve the Brexit deadlock. However, Sturgeon also wishes May well she thanks her for her service.
Not only do we have the European Parliament election results being announced soon which will most likely see Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party emerging with the most MEPs, we have also seen the resignation of our Prime Minister over her perceived inability to secure a Brexit deal which can command a majority. It appears that the will of the public is leaning towards a harder stance on Brexit than May has been willing to deliver, but the indicative votes held in March suggest there is no majority in Parliament for any specific approach to Brexit. It will be interesting to see where our new PM, whoever she or he may be, will take the Brexit negotiations and whether they can command a majority in our current Parliament. It is not outlandish to wonder whether we will see a general election before the year is done. Regardless, today is a very momentous occasion and we truly are witnessing history.